Friday, December 14, 2012

Thursday in and out of Warsaw

This I can say for sure: trees are thriving in northeastern Poland. And that just confused me no end.

Let me go back a bit. For weeks now I've been toying with the idea of taking a side trip out of the city. Hop on the train, get off and hike to the village where my grandparents once lived. If I'm thinking about my past, what could be more important than a return to the place where I spent the first three years of my life and then returned to nearly every summer of my childhood? But, here are the buts: it requires careful scheduling, my time in Poland is short and, frankly, it's even colder now, this Thursday than it was on the previous days. And cold in the city can be remedied with a hot tea in a cafe. Cold in the deep countryside of Poland cannot be remedied. It just is.

Still, the itch is strong. I have the train schedule before me. I could catch the 9:40 out…

But could I? Breakfast, my wonderful breakfast at the B&B is a 9. Alright, I'll eat and take the later train. At 10:40. A done deal! I'll go!

A metro ride and a tram ride later, I'm at the station waiting for my train to leave. And though it looks like it has weathered many a storm, standing there, with it's hunched back and untidy face, I think -- this is good. This feels right. (I smile, too, at the recollection of my childhood trips along this route -- on trains pulled by mighty locomotives. Thrilling and frightening all at the same time.)

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Just a little over an hour later, the train passes over the bridge spanning the River Liwiec and I know that we are there. I jump down and watch the train disappear. Suddenly, the world is quiet.

And pretty. Really pretty.

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But here's the problem: though I've done this train trip hundreds of times in the past, I've never disembarked at this stop before. it's a new one. I'd consulted with my sister. How should I proceed from there? I could hear her laugh over the email: just follow the road! Straight down! It goes straight to our village! You can't miss it!

Okay. There it is. A road. Snow covered and slippery and after a few steps, not paved, but a road nonetheless. I pass fields, farmsteads, fenced yards with rusty farm tools no longer in service. And beautiful, stately forests.

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And I notice right away the great progress of time: when I was a kid, the land was mostly farmland. In the late summer, farmers stacked hay and golden buckwheat flowers dazzled even a young kid. Cows grazed in open meadows, horses waited to be hitched to a wagon, chickens clucked. I knew that several decades later I'd not be seeing many horses pulling wagons anymore. But where are the cows? The chickens, too. I saw a handful. But only a handful. Isn't anyone selling fresh farm cheeses and eggs at the local markets?

I'm so quaintly out of step with the times! My friends later tell me that with subsidies for milk and agricultural products, it doesn't pay to keep your own farm animals. Prices for foods are low enough that you may as well purchase your eggs and milk at the store. Milk from where? I ask, but I already know the hard (or not so hard, depending on who you ask) truth. Back home, I frown when Ed buys milk from Illinois. We have Wisconsin milk! -- I tell him. He shrugs. Milk is milk. Here, they tell me milk may be from Spain, Romania, South America for all they know.

Well okay. No cows. But beautiful forests, gently capped by puffs of white snow. How I loved those forests when I was a kid! We hunted mushrooms after a rainfall (chanterelles!) and tiptoed over soft beds of fallen pine needles. I'm so happy to walk among these tall, red-barked trees again, even if it is -- did I mention this?  -- awfully cold.

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I'm thinking -- I've been walking a really long time. Over an hour. Where the heck is my grandparents' village house? I can't believe it: I have to ask for directions! And sure enough --  I had missed the turn off! How could that be? I've biked these dirt roads, I've walked them, jumped puddles in them. I chased butterflies and dug potatoes for campfires. I went on errands to pick up cheese and butter for my grandma. I know this corner of the world!

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No, I do not. I haven't lived here for more than forty years. Farmers abandon farming and give land to their kids who build houses and put up fences. New trees grow. In forty years, they really grow. And soon, nothing looks as it once did.

Well, not entirely. Somethings cannot be mistaken. The children's orphanage in the woods. I see it. Now I know where I am.

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The river where we bathed and swam and splashed.

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 The familiar now forest. So beautiful on this still, winter day!

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And finally the house. My grandpa added rooms and it grew with us -- from a two room structure to this:

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With a deep well and a small outhouse, shaded by pines, flanked by an orchard of apples, pears and cherries (oh! Isn't that what Ed and I just planted?). I linger for a while. I haven't seen it since I drove here with Ed, seven years ago, to show him this small piece of childhood heaven.

And now I'm done. I hurry (and toward the end run) to catch the Warsaw bound train.

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 I'm so lulled by these images, by the tiredness that comes from long hikes in fresh air, sleepless nights and early blogging sessions that I fall asleep just before we pull into Warsaw. I wake up with a jolt. The train is dark. Empty. The doors are closed. I check my purse. At least I wasn't robbed. I stumble to the front of the train, where the conductor is having a friendly chat with the engineer. They laugh and let me off.

Evening, my last evening in Poland. The city is at its best. The fog's gone and though the sun peeked out for just three minutes during the entire time I was here, it was enough. It reminded me of its existence.

I have my flurry of lasts: a last walk through the old town, dazzling now at night...

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A meeting with friends over tea. A last dinner with someone else back at the b&b again -- this time they put before me an ever so Polish dish of duck with spicy cherry sauce.

Okay, one last look at this once tragic now thriving city, the one I once called home, over the top crazy with lights, with large snowflakes spotlighted on castle walls... Warsaw, showing off!

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Tomorrow I leave Poland. As always, I want to stop for a few days somewhere along the way. That kind of slow transition is always a godsend for me. And it doesn't hurt if the pause can offer up Paris. But the fares were not cooperating. The only way I could accomplish this without upping the price of the ticket was to fly through Italy, where I can pick up the train the next day for France. All this assumes that the world is functioning, the trains are moving, the metros and buses are there to transport you from airport to hotel to train station. Unfortunately, Italian workers, especially those in public transportation, have called for a general strike tomorrow, just in the hours that I am to land there. The day will surely be interesting.